Maryland Court of Appeals Judge John C. Eldridge said yesterday that he did nothing improper by helping to decide whether Annapolis lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano, who described the judge as a personal friend, should retain his law license pending an appeal of his conviction for mail fraud.
"I'm not going to say I'm not a friend of Mr. Bereano," Judge Eldridge said yesterday. "I certainly know him and respect him as a lawyer, like a lot of other lawyers."
But he said his association with Mr. Bereano amounted to attending some large parties given by the lobbyist and lecturing several times to classes Mr. Bereano taught at the University of Maryland Law School that were sometimes followed by a meal with the lobbyist.
And, Judge Eldridge said, other judges on the court agreed in advance of the case that they had no problem with him participating in the decision.
The appeals court voted Friday to allow Mr. Bereano to retain his law license while he appeals his criminal case, despite arguments from the state Attorney Grievance Commission that Mr. Bereano's crimes called his honesty and trustworthiness as a lawyer into question.
Mr. Bereano has, however, been barred from practicing law in the District of Columbia and federal courts.
Judge Eldridge was chief legislative officer for and a close friend of Gov. Marvin Mandel, Mr. Bereano's former lobbying partner. Mr. Mandel appointed Judge Eldridge to the appellate bench, as he did Chief Judge Robert C. Murphy. But the judge said that link did not make him close to Mr. Bereano.
Two other appeals judges, Irma S. Raker and Howard S. Chasanow, recused themselves from the case because of close personal relationships with Mr. Bereano, according to Judge Murphy.
But Judge Eldridge said that after he detailed the nature of his relationship with the lobbyist, the other judges offered no objection to his participation in the Bereano decision.
"The view was that I should sit," Judge Eldridge said. "The more disqualifications you have, the more problems you have."
Judge Eldridge said the panel's vote was 6-1 against suspending Mr. Bereano's license. He said that by the time his turn came to vote, four judges already had voted to deny the motion to suspend, and therefore his vote -- with the majority -- was moot.
He declined to identify the judge who voted in favor of suspending Mr. Bereano.
A U.S. district court jury in Baltimore found Mr. Bereano guilty Nov. 30 of fraudulently billing a number of clients to make illegal campaign contributions through employees of his law firm, family members and the Bereano political action committee.
The lobbyist was sentenced to six months of community confinement, fined $20,000 and given five years of supervised probation by Judge William M. Nickerson, who commented that Mr. Bereano's clients simply got what they were looking for when he misused their money -- close working relationships with legislators.
Judge Eldridge said he always has believed that attorneys should not be suspended pending appeals of criminal convictions unless they are a "danger" to the public.
In an opinion concurring with the 1992 suspension of another lawyer, Judge Eldridge wrote that "while the maintenance of public confidence in the legal profession is clearly a purpose of the ultimate sanction imposed upon an attorney at the conclusion of the disciplinary proceedings, it has not been regarded as a purpose underlying the interim suspension provisions."
In that case, an attorney had been convicted in Harford County of breaking into the home of a client's estranged wife, where he helped the client steal jewelry and other property and killed the woman's cat in a microwave oven. Judge Eldridge wrote that he approved of the suspension because the lawyer could be considered dangerous.
Melvin Hirshman, bar counsel for the Attorney Grievance Commission, said of Mr. Bereano's conviction, "We take the position, because we're discipline counsel, that it does have an impact on the public."